Thursday, 10 June 2010

All going swimmingly?

I've started swimming again. The University where I presently work part-time has a splendid 25-metre-long pool which is available for a modest fee deducted directly by Payroll.

I was 27 before I started swimming in earnest (most people prefer water.) That was only when my wife, a former Lifeguard, persuaded me that it would be fun. I have a fear of drowning, you see, stemming from a single childhood incident when a morbidly obese bitch put a deflated rubber ring around me before throwing me into the deep end. She was the resident schools' pool attendant in the 1980s. Her idea of "lifesaving" technique was to prod at those in the pool with the hooked stick used to open and close the windows. Nobody ever saw her enter the water, but I distinctly remember her going ballistic once when somebody splashed her.

All of this background information is merely to establish that, as a nervy type, I prefer to take my swimming seriously. It is for this reason that I only go to the dedicated Lengths sessions at the pool. You turn up, decide whether you are a slow, medium or fast swimmer, get into lane, do a few lengths, get out, and go home. No diving, no messing about: simple as that.

Some people, however, seem to have trouble interpreting the rules. Take the person I encountered in the pool yesterday as an example. I first became aware of her when she kicked me. Fair enough, I hear you say, accidents do occasionally happen in swimming pools. I'd have agreed with you at the point at which she kicked me had she not, in lieu of apology, glowered at me for putting her off her stroke.

I, being quite a slow swimmer, was in the slow lane. My friend, as I will sarcastically call her, was a late-middle-aged lady in the adjacent medium lane. We were both, admittedly, close to the dividing tape, but even so she wouldn't have kicked me at all had she been actually swimming. I prefer to describe her performance in the water as being repetitive choreography. Imagine it, if you can: firstly, she put her face into the water, followed by an odd, flouncy gesture with the forearms as if trying to repel gnats. This was followed by a violent, kicking, outward movement of the legs before retrieving her head from the water for long enough to take another breath. Repeat ad nauseam.

It was the kicking movement that did for me, straight in my not inconsiderable gut, mere inches from my testicles. Then, as I said, she gave me the Ray of Disgust. The problem with her swimming technique - apart from the already established fact that it less resembled swimming as you or I would know it and fell clearly into the category of fannying about - is that it took her even longer to swim a length than me. Completely inappropriate behaviour for a Lengths session, I'm sure you'll agree.

I presume this is why, some minutes later, I encountered her a second time. Now, I don't know about you, but to me swimming a length involves travelling on the water from the wall at one end of the pool to the wall at the opposite end. The length of the pool = "a length." Sound logical to you? Good. Otherwise, what is the point in having men with rulers and tape measures design and build them to specification when a fortune could be saved by simply tiling the nearest crater and filling it up.

Anyway, I'd reached the wall at the deep end, the area of the pool where I feel most vulnerable when I become aware that my feet no longer reach the floor. There was a convoy of two other swimmers behind me. In need of a breather, I decided to let them go on ahead before I moved again. Leaving a respectful six feet or so between the lady in front and myself, I moved off into the empty space... and got hit sharply in the chest. My friend had decided to cross the tape and join the slow lane. However, my friend was one of those people who don't believe "a length" should include the full 25-metre length of the pool. She was a corner-cutter, and as she swam with her face down in the water, she didn't see me coming. I certainly didn't notice her approaching me from underwater until she hit me. Pulling her face out of the water, she gave me the familiar scowl for a second time.

This time, I'd inadvertently alerted the Lifeguard with the yelp I'd given out when struck. The Lifeguard came down from her ladder and asked if I was alright. I said I was and that I hadn't seen the lady coming. "No," said the Lifeguard, "you wouldn't have done. She wouldn't get out of the pool. She's just cut up three lanes of traffic after I asked her to leave the fast lane." The fast lane?

The third, and last, time astounded me most of all, primarily because I should have seen it coming and yet I managed to let it happen. By this time I'd decided to put as much distance between my friend and myself as possible, and made a point of checking on her progress before embarking on my next length. This particular time she was two-thirds of the pool's length in front of me when I decided it would be safe to start. I was amazed when, just over half-a-minute later, I'd nearly caught up with her. So I did what anybody would do - I swam into the overtaking lane intended for this purpose, and gave her wayward arms and legs a wide berth. I was nearly at the wall when she crashed headfirst into me. It was entirely my fault. After all, I'd forgotten her habit of corner-cutting while not looking where she was going.

I got the Ray again, and childishly retaliated by causing a splash with my feet. She got off lightly - I was only restrained from following my gut instinct by the thought that the Lifeguard would consequently be forced to evacuate the pool while she added an extra capful of bleach to the water.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Me 1 - Kossoff 0

I was born in March 1976, at 3.30pm on a Friday afternoon, as the rest of the country was getting ready to clock off for the weekend. My dad apparently vaulted the conveyor belt at the factory where he worked, when he received the phone call.

Elsewhere in the world that day, Paul Kossoff died, Princess Margaret announced her intention to divorce The Jones Boy, talks over the future of Rhodesia broke down, and Parsloe was interred for the first time of many in “Open All Hours” on BBC-1. The execrable “I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance)” by Tina Charles was no. 1 on the UK charts.

It was raining in Stoke.

Both of my parents were divorcees. Following a long engagement, they married in March 1975, yet didn’t honeymoon until the summer. I was apparently conceived in Torquay in June. Rather disturbingly, Karen, my then-8-year-old sister – baggage from my Mum’s first marriage (to “That Bastard”, as Mum has insisted on referring to him ever since) – was asleep in the same hotel room at the time. Children have been taken into care for less.

My father’s other children (from his marriage to a foolish 1962 one-night stand which resulted in the birth of my half-brother) weren’t such an inconvenience: their mother had denied my dad access rights and, solicitously, told the children their father was dead. My dad didn’t bother to pursue the matter. They didn’t reappear in his life until 1989.

I was lucky to have a safe, stable, normal, loving family. I’d pick up occasional, strange reminders that the girl with whom I shared a bedroom was sired by another man – I’d occasionally hear my Auntie Sheila (her again) utter something along the lines of, “They get on well together, seeing as they’re not really brother and sister.” Christ knows what Sheila would make of adoption – one thing is guaranteed, though: she’d be the one to let the child know precisely their status.

Not really brother and sister? We share a mother, we shared a house for a long time, we even have a disturbingly similar sense of humour. It’d be like saying that the pet cat wasn’t really “part of the family” because it wasn’t conceived by any of us. Stupid.

There has been a myth, developed over the years by minds more conspiratorial than mine, that Karen and I despised each other from the day I was born right up to the time that she announced her divorce from husband mk. I. What utter tosh! It’s true that we had our differences as kids – who doesn’t? She used to terrorise me on a daily basis until I was bigger than her (that’d be when I was about 7, and she was 16). That doesn’t mean we hated each other.

Being nine years older than me, she, quite reasonably, developed interests of her own – such as excessive drinking, nightclubbing and knee-tremblers with strangers in dark alleys* – while I was still playing with her Girls’ World cast-offs. We may have grown distant in that time, but that doesn’t explain why everything has to be described in extremes. Not by other people, anyway.

On a spiritual level, I was sad to see Karen leave the family abode when she got married – we still talked often, and I was going through puberty at the time. Karen was the only person I told about my first snog. Indeed, when I later lost my virginity, Karen took me to the pub. Most significantly, I am now Godfather to Karen’s son.

On a more material level, I was glad she left, as it meant I could move out of my box room and into her far more palatial bedroom.

So, not really brother and sister? Knock it off, smartarse. Talk like that fools nobody.

[*“I bloody wish I had now” – Karen, 31 March 2007.]

Friday, 7 November 2008

The origins of "An Insect, Dropping Its Pollen, Being Frozen"

Some time in the Spring (see below), I said I'd explain the origins of the title of this blog to the two people who enquired. Assuming that anybody actually checks this page for updates, here is that story.

My Mum, Pat, is seen by some to be “a character”. She takes some of the more endearing excesses of her own barmy mother and somehow makes them acceptable. She is the world’s most unreliable witness, as history is frequently re-written when she is responsible for its telling. Not even possession of the facts, or forensic evidence such as tape recordings, will make her change her story. By dogmatically repeating the words, “Excuse me,” loudly enough, she thinks her version of any story will become the accepted one, however implausible.

She’s also the world’s worst joke teller, but the knots in which she ties herself while she’s doing it are frequently funnier than the joke itself. Here’s a recent example:

Question: What’s black and sits forlornly at the top of the stairs?

Answer: Stephen Hawking after a house fire!

Not the greatest joke in the world, I grant you, and also incredibly sick.

She was told that joke at 4pm in the afternoon. At 8pm, she enthusiastically attempted to retell it to my wife thus:

“What does Stephen Hawking look like at the top of the stairs? Oh, bollocks. I’ve fucked it up, haven’t I, Mart?”

Although disabled (she has arthritis of the spine, which was misdiagnosed previously as nascent Multiple Sclerosis, the medication for which probably did her more harm than good), Mum will doggedly work herself into the ground until she is barely able to get out of bed the following day. And if she’s decided that something is good for you, you’ll end up doing it whether you want to or not.

Mum has a heart of gold and a potty mouth – she displays the former and denies the latter at every opportunity, and tuts and laughs infectiously when presented with recordings of herself swearing. (“I don’t really swear that much do I? Yes, I know it’s on the recording, but you’re a cunning little sod and could have edited it.”)

A great tale of her sometimes excessive behaviour hinges around my 30th birthday. Knowing that I’m not really the sort that would appreciate a surprise party (perhaps the warning, “throw me a surprise party and I’ll walk straight out” tipped her off), Mum asked what I would like to do to celebrate my 30th. I decided I’d like a group of us to go to Amsterdam – Mum, my longest-standing friend Daniel, my wife Janine, and myself. My sister was also invited, but she was too occupied in being a new mother at the time.

Amsterdam is my favourite city in the world. It’s a beautiful place with fascinating architecture and a refreshingly liberal outlook which, despite the odds stacked against it, seems to work. Mum, who eyes anything like this with suspicion, seems to think I have a fixation with the prostitutes in the Red Light District. I’m not sure why: I never had an interest in the prostitutes in Hanley, and Louis Barfe dined out on the story that I didn't even recognise that the lady waiting in the rain "whose lift mustn't have turned up" was, in fact, a whore. The fact is that, after having overindulged in legalised drugs a couple of times during early visits, I have been unable to sleep. As parts of Amsterdam don’t sleep, I’ve therefore gone for a walk on a couple of occasions. On revealing this to my Mum, she concluded, naturally enough, that I simply must have been to the Red Light District. (The slightly boring facts are that the first time I ended up in a bar somewhere on Prinsengracht; and I don’t know where I went the second time, but as I had no money on me I suspect I sat by a canal and contemplated my navel for a while. I can honestly say that all of my dalliances with prostitutes in Amsterdam can be thoroughly accounted for. Nice to know your parents have faith in you, isn’t it?)

A few hours after arriving in Amsterdam, we found ourselves in a Coffeeshop. Coffeeshops, for the uninitiated, are tightly controlled licensed premises that happen to sell cannabis products – hash, grass, spacecakes – along with the coffee. My favourite coffeeshop is Blues Brothers, at Nieuwendijk 89. The chocolate milkshakes are heavenly, and the orange squeezing machine is endlessly entertaining.

The plan was, after having taken Mum around the Red Light District (which she found disappointingly tame during daylight hours; she made us go back a further twice during the visit, her only faux pas being to screech, "I bet those transvestites are sore at the end of the night," in a voice that could be heard ricocheting off the walls of the Oude Kirk), we’d spend an hour in the coffeeshop, have a joint, loosen up a bit, and then meet up at 8pm with a mutual friend, Stephen Degg, who by coincidence was visiting the city and was due to fly back to England the following day.

That was the plan…

The reality was quite different. Mum now tells this story as though we, her family and friends, were forcing large quantities of drugs on her. Her protests fall down due to one incontrovertible fact: we couldn’t have physically injected them into her system, so how did she take so much without doing it voluntarily?

Mum surveyed the booty on offer. She opened the spacecake intended for her to share, and ate the whole slice, complaining that I was “stingy” for having bought two to be shared between three of us.

Something of a neophyte when it came to drugs, she then instructed us to roll her a spliff. I offered her a pre-rolled joint. She smoked half of it before declaring that it was “a bit rough”. Having been told to take it easy, her response was, “Bollocks, you. I’m chilling out.”

Daniel rolled her a spliff on condition she gave the pre-rolled one back to me. This she did. She smoked the spliff Daniel gave her, then, like a bull at a red rag, took the remaining three-quarters of mine from the ashtray (“to compare them,” she later said) and smoked most of that. She pronounced it “smooth”.

Despite my concern, and her being told regularly by all of us to slow down a bit, things seemed to be going fine. She was laughing. A lot. She denied being stoned, saying that the rest of us were off our heads. (I don’t deny this.)

Janine went to the toilet. When she returned, we’d gone.

Mum started saying that the room was swaying, and she wanted to go out and get some fresh air. She launched herself out of the shop, myself and Daniel hurriedly following her.

The cake had obviously kicked in – being digested rather than inhaled, spacecake tends to have a delayed but prolonged effect.

By the time Janine came out, Daniel and I were propping a 62-year-old, stoned granny up in the street. It was daylight, but the shops had recently closed, so there were few people around. I asked Janine to carry the bags – my concern was that, if Mum collapsed, I’d be in no fit state to help her up.

I knew there were benches on neighbouring Damrak. I also knew there were shops there which sold boiled sweets and Coca-Cola, sugar seemingly being a panacea for a bad trip. The quickest way to Damrak was down a narrow alley which smelled of stale urine and was caked in mud following a recent shower.

Ten yards down the alley, Mum stopped and announced that she wanted to lie down. Obviously, I wasn’t going to let her do this. She became quite abusive when I told her so. I held her up, her clutching onto me as though her life depended on it.

Using some force, we mauled her to Damrak, and onto the bench. I said I was going to get her something to drink. Her words to me as I walked away, still echoing in my ears to this day, were, “I don’t want anything to fucking drink. I just want to lie down in that alleyway.”

She downed a quarter-litre of Coke, and several Mentos. The colour returned to her cheeks. As quickly as the bad trip had started, it was over.

We asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to return to the hotel and have a little lie down, but we could still go out and meet Steve as arranged. There was a lot of argy-bargy about this – I didn’t want to leave her, but she insisted she’d be alright. I made sure she’d got my mobile number.

Now here comes the rock ‘n’ roll granny bit. On the way to the hotel, she made us stop off at an Off-Licence, so she could buy a giant bottle of Bacardi to surreptitiously drink in the hotel room. Bessie Smith had nothing on my Mum.

On meeting Steve, he asked where Pat was. On telling him she’d got completely shitfaced by 6.30pm, had to be physically manhandled back to the hotel by two strong men, and was now having ‘a bit of a lie down' with a bottle of Bacardi, he asked how old she was. When I told him she was 62, his respect for her increased tenfold!

The Rolling Stones? She can piss ‘em!

At breakfast the following day, I asked her how she'd spent the evening. She seemed quite proud that she'd found BBC-1 on the hotel television, and had watched "the longest episode of 'EastEnders'". Having checked the schedules on returning home, I discovered that the episode transmitted that evening was a regular half-hour. Bearing this in mind, together with the fact that she actively avoids watching the programme at home, I think I can rest my case about her being stoned.

Oh, and the quote, "An insect, dropping its pollen, being frozen" was her stoned description of a televised firework display. Janine and I had the quote printed onto t-shirts for our final day in Amsterdam, and Janine is considering doing it as a cross-stitch.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

London to Brighton Bike Ride 2008

Greetings, tender reader,

Well, it came and it went. The 2008 London to Brighton Bike Ride, in aid of the British Heart Foundation, happened on Sunday. It was my first, and for a moment I suspected it might be my last.

The past few weeks have been a frenzy of training to try to improve my fitness following the accident I suffered at Easter, which saw various bits of me in plaster - thankfully not all at the same time - for several weeks. In February, when I applied to participate in this year's ride, I felt fantastic. I cycled the 56 miles to my mother's just to prove it could be done. I could lift the bike single-handedly and still help little old ladies with their shopping.

One broken thumb, a fractured elbow, a dodgy knee, knackered ribs and half-a-stone later, I didn't feel so good. Which only served to make me more stubbornly determined. I WANTED my medal! A friend tells me I laugh like Muttley being raped, so I don't see why I shouldn't display other facets of his personality. There's also the other factor - you know, raising money for a good cause and all that jism. Still, I wanted a medal!

Television's own Robert Heading and I arrived at Clapham Common at 9am for a 9.30 start (immense thanks are due to Robert's brother-in-law Tony for taking both us and the bikes from Essex; the extra mileage would have finished me off.) On arriving, I heard two women talking about how they didn't get past the start line until over an hour after their scheduled time the previous year. The Common was packed: it took nearly ten minutes to queue at the pedestrian crossing. The day was a lycra fetishist's dream.

While we waited to cross the start line, I asked Robert if he'd ever stopped to consider what he'd signed himself up for. He last rode the London to Brighton over 20 years before, and cycled it this time on a racing bike bought in 1976. Nevertheless, he still seemed to manage a faster average speed than me on my 5-year-old Halfords cheapy. We blamed it on the tyres.

We passed the start line at 9.35am. The delays I'd feared would come in the first two hours.

Getting out of London was fraught, and our fellow cyclists didn't exactly help matters. In spite of being told not to do so, the majority mounted the pavement at one junction and caused a massive bottle-neck 200 yards down the road. Meanwhile, I remained behind a stationary bus running, judging from the smell, on human shit and paraffin.

At Carshalton, I reached my first challenge: a hill. No normal hill, however. This was the most obnoxious hill of all: a gradient so slight as to be insignificant, but which goes on for several miles. The kind of hill where your resolve would be questioned if you got off and walked, but which would knacker your thighs if you cycled.

I cycled it. It knackered my thighs, and my dodgy knee. I honestly wondered whether I'd be able to finish the ride.

On reaching Woodmansterne Village Hall, the first official stop, we were advised to all turn in as there had been an accident ahead which was currently blocking the road. I sent the following text to my nearest and dearest:

"12 miles in and I'm ******* knackered. This ride will be the death of me, mark my words."

I took the opportunity to have a pee, shovel a banana and an energy bar down my throat, and drink a cup of tea. I also refilled my empty water canister. Ten minutes later, we were allowed to move on. Following a conflab during which I kept apologising for lagging behind, we decided that the best policy would be to pace ourselves, not wear ourselves out and under no circumstances to feel pressured by anybody into going faster than was comfortable. A sensible policy, all told, and the knee felt gradually less awful as the ride progressed.

Around the corner from Woodmansterne Village Hall was the first serious hill descent of the day, following a journey so far at little over walking speed. Keeping my brakes on, I went down the hill at a steady 20mph. Somebody scraped the kerb at high speed to the right of me and was thrown over his handlebars with a sickening thump. Going too fast to stop safely, I did the next best thing and told the St. John's Ambulance team at the foot of the hill. I hope he was alright.

Things became generally easier over the next few miles - while the start proved to be one hell of a warm-up, it probably helped prepare me for some of the steeper hills.

Robert's chain fell off at one point, the very chain he'd oiled to within an inch of its existence the day before. The oil ended up on his trousers. White trousers, naturally. Whoops! Shortly after my experience in helping him restore his chain (and by "helping" I mean holding the back wheel off the ground while he did the physical work got his hands - and trousers - dirty), I helped a fellow cyclist with the same dilemma, and made a friend for the rest of the journey. On seeing her wave and smile at me for the umpteenth time at the foot of Ditchling Beacon, Robert threatened to tell my wife. I dunno, you can't be a good Samaritan these days without your best intentions being misinterpreted! (For what it's worth, she said that she must have been passed by 50 cyclists since her chain came loose, and I was the only one who had offered to help. Harrumph. I offered to help a couple of other people besides ("both young ladies?" queried Robert), but that's because I'm too good to be true. I'm also "old school", apparently, but that's a whole other story and seems to have something to do with the fact that I know how to do grammar and punc'tuation proper like.)

While Robert was fixing his chain, I heard the strangest statement from a passer-by: "My front tyre was flat earlier, but it must have pumped itself up when we went down the last hill."

Among the highlights of the day were the little girl in the driveway around the halfway mark who had put up a self-drawn, fully-coloured-in sign saying "Brighton, 94 miles". She was sitting beneath it with a cheeky grin on her face.

The kids (and some adults) with water cannons were good fun, too - although some cyclists weren't too amused. I slowed down on approaching one and said, "Go on, give me your worst shot - I need it." I did, too - I was roasting hot. I only hope it was water they were firing.

On descending one hill, I overtook Robert and shouted, "Eh up - 32.8mph, Robert! How about that?!" only to notice two woman police constables standing at the foot of the 30mph hill. I gave them a winning smile and Robert ribbed me about how they'd pointed a speed gun at me.
"That's okay, there are no identifying plates on a bicycle," said I.
Robert replied, "What about the ******* big number on your back?"

At another point, I said I needed to stop, "because I can't feel my genitals any more."
"Oh, so that's what you've been doing, is it?" was the reply.

I'd read so much about Ditchling Beacon that I felt quite intimidated by the prospect of climbing it. Cycling up it, I knew, would be well beyond my abilities, but I had wondered whether even climbing it would be enough to finish me off. The sight of the hill from the village of Ditchling was breathtaking, and the descent to the foot of the hill was exhilarating. Then I saw it - a vertical wall of grass.

As it turned out, the climb wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be - the gradient is not dissimilar to the steep hill of which my mother lives at the top. The distance was considerably longer, but with some pacing, and considerable sweating, my bike, backpack and myself made it up the hill.

Near the top, the trees started to talk to us like a scene from "M*A*S*H", encouraging us up the hill, and reminding us that we needed to get down the other side before finishing the ride. Following a quick breather at the top, we set off on the last leg.

I felt so happy when I could see the coast to the right of me, far below where I was currently situated. Going down the hill, with nobody around for hundreds of yards and the ability to literally see for miles, I let my brakes off and reached nearly 39mph - on a 30mph road! I eased the brakes back on when I started to get a little bit scared by the rattling noises my bike was making - images of wheels coming loose forming in my head.

We passed the finish line together at 7.04pm, nine-and-a-half hours after starting. 56 miles of hills, dales, crunching gears and erectile dysfunction. (Robert's friend and colleague Adam took the photographs before driving us back to East London. Even more immense thanks on their way to him.)

Considering the mechanical breakdowns along the way, and the fact that we didn't get above walking speed in the first two hours, I'm pleased with this timing for a first attempt. There are those who consider themselves to have failed if they don't complete the course in three hours flat, but I don't think I'd have been any happier if we'd have arrived sooner.

We're already talking about taking part in next year's ride, and even about getting a team together. I think I'll invest in some road tyres before then. And I should remember to pack sandwiches - there's only so many bacon rolls one can eat on a ride without feeling a bit sick!

Special mention should go to the Marshals and Police Officers along the route - their presence and advice made this novice feel much safer than I would have done cycling in normal traffic. And the majority of them were very pleasant and friendly.

Thanks to those kind souls who sponsored me, the British Heart Foundation will get a few hundred quid. This includes the fiver pledged by my Auntie Sheila, the subject of my previous Blog, who so tried to convince me that the whole thing was a bad idea. Silly sod.

Thanks to those of you who sponsored me. You know who you are. And to those of you who were asked and never bothered - you also know who you are and what you are, and so do I!

But most importantly of all, Muttley gets a medal.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

"But you're not the type..."

Greetings dear reader.

I seem to have spent a considerable part of my life being told that I'm "not the type". For example, apparently I'm "not the type" to have my nipples pierced, even though I in fact have had both done. For a long time I was apparently "not the type" to get married (this was probably at a time when I was perceived to be homosexual because I had an interest in musical theatre of the 1920s and 1930s, and because I used to pick up sailors in public lavatories.)

Normally I'd put this down to having been born, bred and subsequently escaped from Stoke-on-Trent, a city which competes with Cheltenham as being the Home of Irrational Prejudice. (Cheltenham clearly wins, for the obvious reason that any sign of ethnic minority in the area gets cleansed faster and more effectively than a white tornado. For what it's worth, Stoke is 19 miles from Stafford, the Spiritual Home of Miserable Bastardy.) However, it's somewhat worrying when otherwise intelligent people seem to have me pigeonholed for no apparent reason. I could compile whole radio station playlists of the records which apparently stick out of my collection like a whole incineratorful of sore thumbs (the complete Bach Organ works, Bran Van 3000 and Aerosmith seemingly having no place in the same apartment as multiple copies of "Pet Sounds" and a glut of Count Basie records. And owning Ella Fitzgerald albums, I was once informed by a former colleague - a Senior Lecturer at one of the area's esteemed Polyversities - was hardly a butch thing to do. Fuck Butchness, I'm in it for the music.)

My short reply, then as now, is that if you have nothing better to do than blindly put people into categories, then you surely deserve to be surprised, shocked or even offended. Personally, I prefer to imagine I live in an egalitarian society where people are accepted or otherwise only on their merits, and try to behave accordingly. (For those who don't know, an egalitarian society is rather like a vegetarian society, except you eat eagles.)

The latest point of confusion in some of my dearest ones' lives is the fact that I will be participating in the London to Brighton Bike Ride for the British Heart Foundation on 15 June. Now, I suppose I can understand this one to an extent. This time last year, I was of gargantuan proportions - my 6ft 3in frame was holding up 24st 5lb of flesh and fat. Mostly fat. In the last twelve months, through a combination of extreme stubbornness, arrogance and bloody-mindedness, I've managed to lost a quarter of that, and am now a lithe, limber and actually still quite fat 18st 9lb. I did it of my own volition, without allowing nurses and dieticians to talk down to me.

True, I've changed my diet to something more healthy (and a kebab tastes so much nicer when you feel as though you've earned the right to eat it.) However, most of it has dropped off me through cycling the 12-mile round trip to the City Centre from my flat and back, three or four times a week.

A friend put the idea of doing the London to Brighton into my head last summer. At that time, the prospect of cycling more than 3 miles in one go made me reach for the nearest comforting block of lard. However, through persistence, in February I managed to cycle the 56 miles to my mother's house in Stoke from our flat in Birmingham, purely to prove it could be done. And, that done, my friend and I applied for and have been accepted on the official London to Brighton ride this summer.

Of course, on being tapped up for sponsorship, there have been those (thankfully few) people who, instead of pledging a couple of bob, have decided to tell me that they think I'm making a grave error, that I "wasn't built" for cycling those kinds of distances (actually, I was. It was puberty that sent me on the inexorable slide to the sweet shop: I was thin and athletic as a child, and have the pictures to prove it), and even that the recent accident I endured (having come off my bike in high winds, I broke a thumb and needed stitches in my elbow) was God's way of warning me off doing the ride. This from a person whose sole exposure to churches has been during weddings and funerals.

I'd have settled for a frank, "I'd rather not sponsor you if you don't mind." The strangest thing is that these people, after the rant, went on to sponsor me.

Sometimes I have trouble in figuring out how the world actually works!

[By the way, if you would like to sponsor me, you can do so by visiting . Thanks.]

By the way, I've also been informed that I'm not the type to eat broccoli. This is because I didn't like the stuff when I was five years old. People, eh?

Finally, among the feedback I've received for this blog (alright then, the only feedback) are a couple of requests for me to explain the title "An Insect, Dropping Its Pollen, Being Frozen". It's one hell of a story (aren't they all?), and should make a suitable subject for my next post.

Until then...

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Greetings, or a Rant About Research

Greetings, gentle reader. No, don't click away just yet. As the great Billie "File Under 'Gay Interest' on eBay" Holiday once sang, "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place...", and I feel the need to let off steam. Which seems to me to be the ideal set of circumstances to start a blog.

I don't know about you, but in our home the bathroom doubles as a reading room. There's always an assortment of books and periodicals developing mildew in the corner - some of them essential, some of them frankly deserving of nothing better by way of storage.

I've not decided yet, but I'm starting to think that into the latter camp should fall my current Bog Book, a paperback about the unreleased 1967 version of the Beach Boys' "Smile" album, written by Domenic Priore. The basic premise of the book is good and generally honourable. It's just a pity that the thing is full of mistakes.

Perhaps at this stage I should explain to those who don't know me that I have something of a background in research, and pride myself on my methodical, don't-accept-anything-at-face-value approach. Indeed, it was this approach which recently had me biting my tongue when the researcher of a programme being made for BBC Radio 3, for which I'd been contracted to do some archive audio restoration (my current, freelance day job), kept calling to basically ask me to do her job for her. (And all because I possess a standard reference work which she'd never heard of, relying mostly on Wikipedia for her information.)

Back to the book: the particular error which made me pull my trousers up and consult the internet was the revelation that record impresario John Dolphin was murdered by soul legend Percy Mayfield. Had the names been less obscure in this day and age, the claim wouldn't have been out of place on "Brass Eye".

Mayfield, conveniently, died in the 1980s, thus leaving his name open to libel. Dolphin's murderer, as any cursory Google will reveal, was a struggling songwriter by the name of Percy Ivy. Mayfield was probably busy writing "Hit The Road, Jack" at the time.

Some may say that the Mayfield reference was simply a minor faux pas, but it does seem to highlight a problem with the media in general at present. Many of my friends and former colleagues work within the various media, and we have all bemoaned a general dropping in standards, from publishers who assign frankly clueless supervisory editors to books, to a major broadcaster openly deciding to "fair deal" archive clips in the hope that they won't get sued by the performer or copyright holder, thus potentially tainting the reputations of the vastly experienced researchers and authors whose names are on the package.

Even the once-mighty EMI aren't above such incompetence: a few years ago, they reissued - to great fanfare - the American versions of The Beatles' albums on CD, in both mono and stereo formats. (In those days, not only did unique compilations get issued in different territories, but records were generally put out in mono and stereo mixes which were often deliberately quite different to each other.)

When the CDs of the second box set hit the stores, it took a matter of minutes for Beatles anoraks to establish that the mono mixes were not the authentic originals, but simply the stereo transfers reduced to mono. Cue widespread internet hysteria and an expensive about-face for EMI, who replaced the duff discs once lawsuits had been threatened.

Sometimes you have to wonder just who is minding the store.